Breaking Boundaries: Starting a School in Ethiopia

Guest post by Ellen Taussig – Founding Executive Director, ILAE and Advisory Board Member Open Hearts Big Dreams Fund

The first graduates of International Leadership Academy of Ethiopia/ILAE, class of 2017, will be attending Duke University, Swarthmore College, Middlebury College, NYU Abu Dhabi, India, among others, and have attended summer programs at Yale University and NYU. They have also ranked in the top two percent in their Matric exams in the last two years.

OHBD has a broad and embracing mission which plans to create opportunity in Ethiopia. As part of its design, it is bringing together disparate organizations which are already doing good work in country. This outreach can only strengthen both individual efforts and the impact that we can all have working together.

The class of 2017 started 9th grade in 2013, the founding year of ILAE. I recruited each one of them from their local middle schools in the Lebu/Lafto area. I walked in cold to each school and asked the Director to send me his top five students whom I then interviewed.

Such stories! Hymanot lost her single mother the year before and declared that she will be the first woman prime minister of Ethiopia. Hannah left her farming family in Lalibela in the fourth grade because she would not have been able to continue her studies there. Abebe, now the first Ethiopian to receive a MasterCard Foundation scholarship and who will be attending Duke, comes from a family who sells bottled drinks at a roadside stand.

These students had no idea why they were being asked to the director’s office to meet an American woman. But they answered my questions with wide-eyed curiosity and eagerness. And they have carried those qualities with full vigor and exuberance throughout their four years at ILAE. They are the school’s pioneers, the first group that has proven that excellent education for excellent students will result in globally competitive competence.

At our first parent meeting in Addis, itself an unusual event, there was some understandable skepticism from some parents about this new school. Was this to be another unkept promise? What was the catch? What was in it for the founders? But trust set in quickly and parents rallied to the cause, contributing what they could even when they couldn’t afford to pay any tuition. They came on Saturday’s to clean and do any work around campus that needed doing.

The outstanding faculty were similarly drawn to the idealistic vision of the school and have given their all. These are visionary and skilled educators who knew in their hearts that a school like this could exist but had not yet seen it happen.They threw themselves into their work, making themselves available to students at all hours.

The students’ triumphs have also been driven by what they knew could happen if only given a chance. They have fully embraced not only the the academic challenges, but also the high standards of character development that the school demands.

The founding ideals of the school integrate both ancient Ethiopian ideals as well as 21st century best practices. This unique framework has cultivated new leaders who have pride in the best of their culture’s traditions and skills to participate in today’s world.

ILAE was born in the vision of an expat Ethiopian who wanted to give to his country of origin. He recruited a team of experienced educators and together they have created a reality from a vision which will have significant impact on the next generation of Ethiopia. Now OHBD can help strengthen the work that ILAE and all of its participating organizations can accomplish.